People find solace in the strangest places. Heavy metal fans, in particular, must seem to the outsider at least a card short of a full deck when they describe the grounding and centering comfort of a bedrock heavy monolithic wall of sound, or a sustained tremolo driven through a frozen storm of distortion, or a pounding polyrhythm tightly wound and ridden mercilessly to its last gasping breath. There’s comfort to be found in the relatability of the sadness, anger, joy, and triumph in all of metal’s various subgenres, as well. And, of course, heavy metal is most famous for taking the listener on an up-close but safe trip into mystery and danger and evil even. It’s comforting because it’s a reminder of terrible things that are possible but not happening right now (because you’re sitting comfortably, listening to music right now); an invigorating journey, if predictable.
Usually, it’s pretty clear in the music what the evil is and what it looks like: Satan and televangelists and murderers and corporate tyrants and the like. But not always. There’s another, different but closely related, strange comfort that metal has kind of nailed from the beginning and that’s the improbably simultaneous senses of safety and foreboding: you know that something bad is coming – is already here, but not right here yet – you just don’t know what, where, or when. Effective horror stories and movies exploit this ambiguous anxiety and so does a lot of really good heavy metal music.
It’s like being in an unfamiliar woods at night where there’s strangeness all around, though you can’t place it. The odd pull of darkness, a hanging malevolence, an uneasy stirring in your blood. But you’re with a friend, so you’re safe. You feel better confessing your discomfort to him; you’ve lightened your burden by sharing your fear. Taking a sip of your drink, your heart freezes as your eyes catch the fire glinting off your friend’s wet toothy grin and the silhouettes of trees behind him begin to spiral, then blur, and fade to black.
That’s a scary thing when it happens to you! But it’s a lot of fun when you get to feel the feeling without dying the death. And this particular feeling is especially exhilarating because it locates the danger in the last place you expected it to be.
Hail Spirit Noir is your sinister friend in the woods.
Nearly 20 years ago, in the Greek city of Thessaloniki, the band known today as Hail Spirit Noir began as Transcending Bizarre?. Theoharis Liratzakis (guitars and vocals), Haris (keyboards), and J. Demian (Bass and Guitars) played an avant-garde style of symphonic black metal in the vein of Arcturus and Sigh and Dimmu Borgir but not just like any of those and maybe even more like Ayreon if Arjen Lucassen corpsepainted his face and then got lost on a random walk acid trip. After a couple demos and three very well-regarded full lengths, the three shifted their direction away from the frozen north to embrace a cosmic/third eye perspective on black metal aesthetics and released their first album as Hail Spirit Noir in 2010. That record, Pneuma, laid out a vision of psychedelic prog with a black metal soul. Albums two and three, Oi Magoi and Mayhem in Blue, expanded the vision, sometimes exploring old timey prog rock ideas with extended improvisational stretches on mellotron and Moog and other synthesized sound makers, while at other times focusing on the strange melodies and harmonies of classic psychedelic rock, and at still other times emphasizing a low key experimental spirit that recalls bands like Virus and especially Enslaved when that band gets loose and stretches it out. Always a little bit eccentric and yet familiar in a far off way, the overarching theme being expansion within their strangely comfortable sphere.
In 2018, leading up to album number four, Hail Spirit Noir added their touring musicians to the recording roster, including drummer Foivos, second vocalist Cons Marg, and second keyboardist, Sakis Bandis. Making the live crew permanent suggested then that the band was committed to further expanding their musical palette and this is evident now with the release of Eden in Reverse.
The vocals represent another point of calculated expansion, this time by reduction, as Eden in Reverse forgoes altogether the harsh vocals of earlier records, yet retains and emphasizes the sweet melody and subtly unsettling harmony that reminds of the sinister smile that promises dreams and delivers nightmares. They’ve added new vocals in Cons Marg, and also a guest spot for Lars Nedland on Eden’s most vigorous and catchiest song, “Crossroads,” each of whom adds a new dimension to the already dynamic storytelling. And even within that melodic focus, a black metal spirit persists, especially where ambient tones and atmospherics shift to blasts and tremolo, bracing that warm, dark psychedelia with cold, dry bones.
With so much going on between so many instruments and singers, the production on Eden in Reverse is critical to its success, allowing for each instrument to support and to shine in its own right. The quality of the production is clearest when taking in the album as a whole, seeing its broader construction as a reflection of the individual pieces comprising it. As within the songs, Eden in Reverse vacillates between clearly-defined musical ideas and abstract tonal figures. Entire tracks function as intro or interlude but also more than that, working as conduit, effectively connecting one track to the next to generate a fully flowing listening experience across the record.
The whole of it might be best executed in the final 10-minute track, “Automata 1980,” of which nearly the first four minutes are made up of ambient ethereal spookiness that would fit comfortably in the soundtrack of a b-rate 70s (or early 80s) sci-fi horror flick. Those minutes may seem superfluous at first but they end up being integral to the song as they build tension and generate the atmosphere for Eden’s denouement, which fittingly lulls the listener into a warm complacency, something like resignation to demise, before fading out on cold electronic notes certain only in their emptiness.